What if we embraced our inner ugliness instead of cancelling it?
Under Split Theatre’s brand new Work on the Self programme, by Artistic Director Darryl Lim, participants undergo a 10-week journey where they attempt to articulate and make sense of their real-life stories within a safe space, while growing as actors and individuals at the same time.
And as with any new programme, one needs to assess its ‘success’ in some way, resulting in Don’t Cancer Me Can (DCMC), a physical theatre production devised by the pilot batch of Work on the Self participants. Comprising the seven members of the Split Theatre Ensemble (Lim Jun De, Clement Yeo, Ella Wee, Cheng Xin Rui, Damien Ng, Sreya Sanyal and Lim Ci Xuan), DCMC is a presentation that encapsulates each member’s individual pain points, loosely tied together as a response to Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex.
How then does a classic Greek tragedy have anything to do with cancer or contemporary Singaporean actors? Split considers how the original plot sees Queen Jocasta casting out her child after learning a terrible truth. Yet he survives, and years later, he returns as a curse and fulfils the prophecy after all. Split interprets this as the metaphorical “cancer” that lives in us all – the negativity and darkness within, the parts we try to snuff out, yet in attempting to kill them off, we only find it coming back to haunt us.
With that in mind, DCMC has its performers embracing each of their own individual flaws through the performance. Staged at the Arts House Play Den, the cast appears in the midst of warm-ups as we enter, the wash lights constant and unchanging throughout the performance, as if we are bearing witness to them during a rehearsal, dressed in casual clothing, from denim jackets to even an army half-marathon singlet.
The performance is short, clocking in at under 60 minutes. What we witness in that time is the ensemble combining repetitive physical movements, with repeated patterns of text, as if attempting to reconcile and normalise their self-hate through this repetition, mixed in with references to Oedipus Rex. The intent here is not to deliver a specific message, but to act as a mirror for audience members to reflect on, deriving meaning from these words and actions based on their own individual experiences.
Take for example Sreya, who occasionally embodies Queen Jocasta. Her words revolve around others’ perception of her and her expensive skincare routines. Her attitude and tone becomes hysterical, and she ends off each segment with a McDonalds’ order, upsizing it each time. Jun De on the other hand seems to grapple with a father’s disappointment in his pursuit of the arts, while also dealing with his own emotional distance between the two, perhaps a reference to Oedipus’ distance with his own father.
Beyond these individual segments, there are times the ensemble comes together, standing in a circle and facing out as they vent their frustrations and innermost thoughts to the audience. There are times the ensemble leans into the absurd from incongruity, performing the Dance of the Nation while angrily, exhaustedly expressing their criticisms of the world around them. Other times, they gather close to each other, listening close to the one speaker as he or she tells their story, applauding and offering validation after they finish.
One imagines that all this represents what goes in behind the scenes at Work On The Self – laying bare these bonds the ensemble have created with each other during their journey, and showing us how much they have learnt to be comfortable with each other and their selves as they continue to process their own insecurities. It’s not perfect (but then, who among us is?) – but what DCMC proves is that there is a space for healing that theatre can provide. And even if those long-held issues never get resolved, at least, through Work On The Self, one can find a supportive group to work through and embrace these issues together, and feel just a little less alone in the world.
Photo Credit: Split Theatre
Don’t Cancer Me Can ran from 18th to 21st December 2021 at The Arts House.
Work On The Self is currently accepting sign-ups for its second run from 22nd January to 26th March 2022, which too will culminate in a capstone performance that participants are invited to take part in. More information about Work On The Self can be found here